A Free-Market Energy Blog

Three Libertarian Women and Energy

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- March 11, 2009

March is women’s history month. In recognition, the Cato Institute’s post, “Three Women Who Launched a Movement: Celebrating Liberty in Women’s History Month,” brings attention to Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand–each of whom wrote a powerful book in the 1940’s that helped launch the modern libertarian movement.

Each recognized energy as the master resource in different ways. Here are their three books relating to energy:


Rose Wilder Lane begins The Discovery of Freedom (1943) with this memorable prose:

Here is a planet, whirling in sunlit space. The planet is energy. Every apparent substance composing it is energy. The envelope of gases surrounding it is energy. Energy pours forth from the sun upon this air and earth.

Isabel Paterson develops the analogy of “the energy circuit” in her 1943 book, The God of the Machine:

Personal liberty is the pre-condition of the release of energy. Private property is the inductor which initiates the flow…. An empire is merely a long circuit energy-system. The possibility of a short circuit, ensuing leakage, and breakdown or explosion, occurs in the hook-up of political organization to the productive processes.

Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943) did not have any direct or indirect energy themes, but Atlas Shrugged (1957) certainly did. A whole essay could be written on her creative, even prophetic, use of energy, but here is a partial summation:

Energy Comes from the Mind

But the iron ore and all those other things were there all the time. Why didn’t anybody else make that Metal, but Mr. Reardon did?

Potential of Energy

[Galt’s motor would add] about ten years added to the life of every person in this country—if you consider how many things it would have easier and cheaper to produce, how many hours of human labor it would have released for other work, and how much more anyone’s work would have brought him.

Energy Poverty

Far below in the valley, in the gathering night, there trembled a few pale smears which were the lights of tallow candles.

Energy Moves the World

“‘Motive power—you can’t imagine how important that is. That’s the heart of everything.’”

Energy as a Supreme Good

He was the man of extravagant energy … who knew … that ingenuity of his mind is his noblest and most joyous power.

Rand’s fictional account of a deteriorating society contains an interventionist dynamic of growing government control of the vital energy economy. There is the Bureau of Economic Planning and Natural Resources. There are price controls, conservation mandates, and an excess profits tax. (She had seen all this during World War II.) There are shortages and breakdowns (what Ludwig von Mises called “planned chaos). Regulators play the blame game on private industry.

The Cato essay ends:

Surveying the disheartening intellectual climate of the 40s [and add the intellectual climate of today], F. A. Hayek wrote:

We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage…. Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.

The battle, history has since shown, is not yet lost, and this is due in no small part to Rand, Paterson, and Lane’s belief in the power of ideas. Unconstrained by conventional political categories, they savaged the collectivist economic nostrums of the left even while, in their lives and careers, they exploded the rigid gender roles seen as sacrosanct by so many on the right. In the process, they laid the foundations of the modern libertarian movement. This Women’s History Month, on the sixty-sixth anniversary of their monumental triple achievement, the Cato Institute pays homage to three women without whom it would not exist.

Cato senior fellow Jim Powell’s full essay on the role of Lane, Paterson, and Rand on the modern libertarian movement, published in The Freeman in May 1996, is available here.

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